Advising Couples Toward Retirement

I came across an online Forbes article by Robert Laura titled “When Couples Argue About Retirement” that snagged my imagination. The 2015 article shares links to a starting-point questionnaire. That instrument has both partners answering retirement lifestyles and time management questions. Other open-ended questions focus on mortality, values, and family. In the article, Laura raises an issue that, for most of us, is the elephant in the room when we talk with clients about retirement planning. That issue – how couples will handle their relationship, both as individuals and as a partnership – lies dormant in most advisor conversations for many reasons, not the least of which is the emotion associated with broaching the subject.

The question, however, demands to be heard and we who earn our living as advisors must give it a hearing. Creating a retirement plan for a couple can be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding things we do. But if we only do the financial study, no matter how thorough we do it, and fail to inject into the plan the day-to-day, month-to-month, year-to-year relationship challenges a couple will face in retirement results in a plan half-done. Advisors on their game will go there; most couples need us to do so.

Why? Because, according to Laura, most couples are so focused on “the number” or “the date” or “the retirement dream.” They step around talking with each other about time together and time apart, how they will invest their lives in family or volunteering or a hobby, and what retirement life will look like when the big day finally gets there.

I want you to take this questionnaire approach and inject it early in the retirement planning conversation. Add this topic to your discovery conversation or include it when you meet with clients who are within five years of retirement. Ask them: “Have the two of you talked about what retirement will look and feel like when you both quit working?” Follow-up with: “May I give you some homework to discuss several non-financial, relationship issues you will face in retirement?” There are many concerns they need to address. Of course, the following questions are only a primer; others will certainly bubble up:

  • How does a retirement day look?
  • Will they spend time together and time apart?
  • Will they work part-time employment or have volunteer interests?
  • What is on their travel bucket lists?
  • Will they travel as a couple or as individuals?
  • How do friends, family, and grandchildren factor into their plans?
  • Do they have faith commitments?
  • Are there new interests each partner would like to pursue?

Next, set a follow-up appointment with them two or three weeks out to listen to their findings. Some couples may want to do this work with each other via e-mail because jumping into the topic conversationally may be either too emotional or threatening. The goal is communication, openly sharing fears and dreams, personal goals and couple hopes.

When the couple comes back with their findings, listen sensitively, ask questions for clarification, and applaud them for taking this important step. You will learn many things about your clients’ non-financial lives that will impact their financial future. Failing to add this relationship component to our planning work will impair even the best work we can do on the cash-flow, risk assessment front. The bonus for us is that most couples know they need to address these issues but do not have a trusted person who will take the journey with them. Be that person and give your pre-retirement couples a wonderful gift.





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Comments 1

  1. Tim,

    Good post. One other thing to mention is what to do about your house. Most of us approaching retirement are living in a house that is way too big for our current lifestyle. Selling the current house and downsizing to a smaller house is fraught with financial peril with closing costs, moving costs, and the real potential of paying more for a smaller house than you currently have. My thought is that if you really need to downsize, do it well before retiring so that there is one less adjustment to make on top of the major adjustment of retirement.


    Bill Rigot

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